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Hard-hit harvests

April 27, 2011

Around the world, harvests are adversely affected by extreme weather such as droughts, floods and storms - and those who pay the price are the ones who can least afford it.

Women tilling the field
Image: picture alliance/africamediaonline

In 2010, farmers around the world grappled with huge harvest losses. They were attributed to factors such as droughts and forest fires in Russia and Ukraine, floods in China, India, Pakistan, Australia and Canada as well as drought in South America. 

These natural disasters have hit developing nations especially hard. 

"These countries are particularly vulnerable because they rely heavily on local agriculture," Karsten Smid, an energy and climate expert with Greenpeace, says. "Farming on scraggy, infertile land is hard enough, and the extended droughts and torrential rain caused by climate change is the last straw. As always, it's the poorest parts of the world population which feel the effects."

Paying the price

A map that shows Global Drought Hazard Frequency and Distribution
The world's pooorest regions are also the ones most affected by climate changeImage: CC / SEDACMaps

When harvests fail, these populations are often hit by a double whammy - food prices rise due to a shortfall in supply, and on the other hand, famines aren't uncommon. In the mid-1980s in Ethiopia, for example, some eight million people faced starvation, with an estimated one million dying of malnutrition as a result of years of drought.

"These people are least responsible for changes in the climate," Smid says.They produce just a fraction of the world's greenhouse gas emissions,  he says, but they are the first to pay the price. "There is just no climate justice in this case," he adds. 

Preventative action

A farmer in Morogoro, Tanzania, shows the effects of drought on her maize crop
Aid projects teach farmers about drought-tolerant crop varietiesImage: CC/Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT

The German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) also attests to the growing pressure on food security in developing nations. Their staff in the field in vulnerable nations are focusing heavily on education and transfer of knowledge.

"Past experience of such situations needs to be used to teach us how to react better in future," Nana Künkel, an agrarian economist with GIZ, says.

That includes improved climate and vulnerability analyses as well as technologies to combat the impact of climate change on agriculture. The GIZ often relies on experiences from different countries in its consultancy work. "The earlier we start, the better prepared (these countries) are," she stresses.

Künkel points out that climate change is a key factor in GIZ projects currently in operation in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The region is witnessing major change as a result of rising sea levels and increasingly frequent storms that threaten the country's poverty-stricken rural farmers as well as rice and shrimp farmers.

One GIZ project currently underway examines climate risks and explores methods to boost coastal protection as a way of improving food security.

Rescue packages for farmers

Other parts of the world are also seeing the introduction of systems designed to reduce risk for those hard hit by global warming. Ghana has established an insurance scheme for small farmers – unlike standard insurance plans, the claims are not based on personal damage assessment but on data compiled by local weather stations.

This makes the scheme more affordable to small farmers and looks set to be copied in China and Kenya.

The main priority is to pass on expertise and help locals develop long-term strategies, Künkel says. Every country and every region requires its own solutions aimed at stabilizing their respective situations.

Another GIZ project aiming to adapt African economies to climate change is based on regional weather forecasts that boost efficiency by identifying which crops are likely to fare best. 

Uneven and unfair

Farmers in the fields in Malawi
In many developing nations, large swathes of the population depend on agricultureImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The idea is welcomed by Karsten Smid, but he is quick to point out that while regional weather forecasts can provide vitally important information, they still need to be significantly improved.

"The data gathering systems are still in their infancy," he observes. "But at least they exist," he concedes. He also believes that although climate issues need to be tackled locally, they must be grasped as part of a broader picture.

"Wealthy industrialized nations have caused the problem, but poor countries bear the burden,” he says. “This uneven distribution is unfair."

Po Keung Cheung (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar